The leading candidate to become Brazil’s next president has vowed to launch a major crackdown on the illegal miners and loggers laying waste to the Amazon in the wake of the “barbaric” murders of the Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and the British journalist Dom Phillips.
Speaking to foreign journalists in São Paulo, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva paid tribute to the two men, who were gunned down in June while documenting the historic assault on Indigenous lands that has unfolded under Brazil’s current leader, Jair Bolsonaro.
“They were victims of a massacre, a barbarity, the kind of which should no longer occur in Brazil,” said the veteran leftist, who polls suggest will win a third term in power when 156 million Brazilians choose their next president in October.
Asked by the Guardian what concrete steps he would take as president to address the explosion of Amazon devastation and attacks on Indigenous communities, Lula vowed to create a ministry for native peoples and rebuild the environmental agency, Ibama, which critics claim Bolsonaro has deliberately dismantled since taking office in 2019.
Lula also pledged to clamp down on the thousands of illegal gold prospectors who have swarmed into Indigenous territories since Bolsonaro became president and whose unlawful activities Phillips had covered extensively.
“We will put a complete end to any kind of illegal mining. This can’t be simply through a law – it must be almost a profession of faith,” Lula declared, undertaking to make the global climate crisis “an absolute priority” if elected.
Lula said he would strengthen Brazil’s federal police and its borders in order to wrest back control of remote Amazon regions such as the Javari Valley, where Pereira and Phillips were killed, from gangs of narco-traffickers and gun-runners.
“If we take great care we will be able to avoid a repeat of what happened to Dom and Bruno,” Lula told scores of international correspondents who had gathered to hear him speak in a São Paulo hotel.
Lula, who governed from 2003 to 2010, insisted Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon region was unquestionable but signaled that his government would welcome international help in the battle to reduce deforestation.
“We don’t need to cut down even one more tree to plant soybeans. We don’t need to cut down one more tree to plant corn. We don’t need to cut down a single tree to plant sugarcane or raise cattle,” Lula said.
The former president – whose government won plaudits for slashing deforestation but outraged Amazon advocates by building the Belo Monte mega-dam – was speaking as the race for power intensified ahead of the 2 October first-round vote.
Recent weeks have seen growing fears that Bolsonaro, a radical far-right former army captain who openly celebrates Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, might refuse to accept defeat.
Earlier this month more than a million citizens from across the political spectrum signed a high-profile manifesto warning that the country’s young democracy faced a moment of “tremendous danger”. Ominously, Bolsonaro has urged hardcore supporters to hit the streets “for the last time” on 7 September, Brazil’s independence day.
However, Lula minimized fears Brazil might suffer a democratic “rupture” and said it was inconceivable citizens would accept seeing their hard-fought democracy thrown away.
He predicted Bolsonaro would have no choice but to in practice accept defeat, just as his US ally Donald Trump was forced to do after losing to Joe Biden.
“He’s a poorly made copy of Trump,” Lula said of his rightwing rival. “Trump also tried to avoid accepting the result. They tried to storm the Capitol. But he had to back down and I’m certain that here in Brazil the election result will be accepted without any kind of questioning.”
Lula also played down concerns over his own safety after reports that he had started wearing a bullet-proof vest at rallies after a series of violent incidents. Before Lula’s arrival at Monday’s press conference, one federal police agent could be seen checking metal dustbins for concealed explosive devices.
“I don’t have the time to think about this. I’m so obsessed with winning these elections so I can try to fix this county … that I’m not worried about anything else,” Lula reporter told. “Of course I take every necessary precaution but I don’t feel this dread that some people seem to think I do.”